If you like your holidays with a dash of exercise, or perhaps even liberal lashings of adrenalin and white knuckle thrills, one of these excursions may appeal. From deep sea diving to Scottish skiing – via a quick go at zorbing in Dorchester – here’s a few essential outdoor pursuits on offer across Britain.
Tackling Cornwall’s Commando Ridge
It was at the turn of the twentieth century that the daddy of rock climbing, A.W. Andrews, put the far-western Cornish peninsula of Penwith down in history as the epicentre of sea-cliff climbing. It’s a dramatic landscape, where scrub-topped granite cliffs and gaping zawns plummet into the sea, and one which presents climbers with some thrilling challenges.
Famously dubbed Commando Ridge for its role as a training ground for marines during World War II, the route is adrenaline inducing without being a reckless undertaking. Waves lick your heels on the vertical slab jutting skyward from Porthmoina Cove, after which the gradient eases and the dragon’s back of rock arcs landward. While routes this awesome are often only accessible to experts, what makes the ridge a classic is that it accommodates all levels of climbers and offers lots of exit and entry points where less competent – or weary – climbers can dip in and out. Excellent hand- and footholds etched into the granite invite even novice climbers to have a go (in the hands of an expert), and there are several shorter climbs on the western side of the ridge.
Hotrock Climbs (hotrockclimbs.com) can organize rock-climbing courses and trips to the ridge.
Riding with dogs in Thetford Forest
Britain is full of fringe outdoor pursuits pursued tirelessly by committed enthusiasts, but this one really is unusual – even for Norfolk. It’s husky riding, East Anglian-style: teams of Siberian huskies are raced through the expansive heath and woodland of Thetford Forest, pulling excited participants not on sledges (it doesn’t get cold regularly enough for that), but purpose-built “rigs”. It’s ideal terrain for taking the dogs out, and a great way for them to keep exercised on winter mornings. Be aware though that the huskies like it best when it’s really, really cold. It’s a great feeling, surging through the forest at speed, powered only by the dogs, and pure husky heaven too; they’re as happy as can be until the next morning’s run.
Contact www.huskyracing.org.uk for more information about husky rides.
Rediscovering Scotland’s ski resorts
Until recently, the unique exhilarations of skiing looked destined to become solely a foreign pleasure. That was until the winter of 2009/10. Every snow cloud, it seems, has a silver lining, at least in the Highlands: while the rest of us slipped and skidded to work, the Scottish ski resorts struck gold, with superlative cover right into summer, under blue skies bordering on the alpine. With a dismal exchange rate making foreign resorts even pricier, moreover, Scotland’s resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time. New runs were built, and beginners took up skiing like never before. It was a joy to see those slushy, rock-laced runs reborn.
Whether you’re an absolute beginner or an old hand, on snowboard or skis, you’ll do well to make your first stop Glenshee, the clan chief of Scotland’s resorts with an impressive 36 runs and 40km of piste, and a location readily accessible from Edinburgh. Though nearby Cairngorm boasts a funicular railway, and beginners’ favourite The Lecht the best snowmaking facilities, this place, on the edge of the Grampians, has been hosting skiers since the 1930s, and, if you’re lucky enough to experience blue skies instead of a klaxon-sounding whiteout, can almost feel like a continental day-trip.
Riding horses on Exmoor
Horses and Exmoor are a natural match: it’s long been a favourite terrain for hunting – a source of pleasure to some, embarrassment to others – and the habitat of the stocky Exmoor ponies that roam wild. More than three hundred miles of bridleways intertwine across the moor, allowing you to take in such beauty spots as Tarr Steps, Porlock Vale and Selworthy Beacon, and views stretching across to the Quantock Hills and over the Bristol Channel to South Wales.
Roads on Exmoor are scarce but access to its wildest depths is comparatively easy on four legs. Horses and ponies are readily hired from riding schools and stables that offer everything from simple treks and escorted rides for novices to more ambitious half-day hacks for experienced riders. At some point in your rambles, let rip and feel the rapture of a mad gallop over the heather. Sometimes exhausting but always exhilarating, there’s no better way of experiencing the moor.
Zorbing in Dorchester
Zorbing, or sphering as it is sometimes known, is generally pigeonholed as an extreme sport – but don’t let that put you off. The Concise OED defines it as “a sport in which a participant is secured inside an inner capsule in a transparent ball which is then rolled along the ground”. In an inflatable nutshell, it is the gloriously silly pursuit of travel inside an oversized beach ball – one of the most fun outdoor pursuits around – and the longest run in England is at Dorchester-based Zorbing South UK.
A clever piece of design sees two intrepid zorbonauts dive through an access window in the side of the transparent orb into the smaller inner ball, which is connected to the outer sphere by nylon cords. Here, seemingly suspended in space, they are strapped opposite each other into harnesses – go with a friend for double the fun – then eased to the lip of a grass piste. There are no brakes, no going back.
There should also be no surprise to discover that cartwheeling at speeds in excess of 20mph over more than 200 yards causes utter disorientation. Within a bounce or two, you lose all sense of direction. Yet nausea is rarely a problem for first-time zorbonauts, say Zorbing South operators. Extreme hilarity is.
Zorbing South UK (01929/426595, www.zorbsouth.co.uk) operates from late March to October.
Scrabbling up big Ben’s cold shoulder
Nowhere epitomizes the Scottish Highlands better than Ben Nevis. Massive and broad-shouldered, with a north face that plummets 650m from its 1344-metre summit, “the Ben” is an imposing sight, particularly in winter when snow drapes its ledges and buttresses, and ice falls transform its gullies and ridges into an ice-climbing playground.
There are numerous ways to ascend the mountain, longest of which is the classic 600-metre Tower Ridge route. It’s not too technically demanding, but it’s not easy either, and you should have had some experience of winter hill scrambling (at the very least) before taking it on – wise heads employ the services of a guide.
As you set out en route to the crag you’ll have plenty of time to ponder the lie of the land and the wisdom of what you’re about to attempt. Ice climbing requires a mix of technique and brute strength – and you’ll soon be tested on whether you have sufficient of each. There’s very little let up in the exposure or the excitement, and throbbing forearms and wobbly thigh and calf muscles are unavoidable. Errors of judgement on the ridge have seen parties benighted, or worse. But when you eventually emerge onto the summit and out of the icy blue shadows of the north face you’ll have the sense of having engaged with the mountain’s winter personality in a way no mere walker ever could.
Ice Factor, Leven Rd, Kinlochleven, Lochaber, Highland (www.ice-factor.co.uk) has the largest indoor climbing wall in the world and offers both indoor and outdoor climbing courses, including trips to Ben Nevis.
Scuba diving in Scapa
Surrounded by the windswept Orkney Islands, one of the world’s great natural harbours conceals a dramatic episode of naval history that’s ripe for underwater exploration. Scapa Flow, Britain’s finest dive site, inspires awe in the most blasé of Aussie Scuba instructors and commands respect from seasoned deep-sea rig divers. In fact plunging deep into these chilly Scottish waters to explore the shipwrecks of Scapa is an unforgettable experience for anyone with the courage to attempt it.
This is the last resting place of the German High Seas Fleet interned by the British at the end of World War I. Rather than see the flotilla broken up, Rear-Admiral von Reuter ordered its scuttling – all 74 ships – on June 21, 1919, thus denying the Allies valuable spoils of war. Salt water, tidal currents and salvage efforts have all conspired in the intervening years to erode the fleet, but a dozen or so vessels still cling to the seabed, accessible to all with sufficient diving qualifications, equipment – and nerve.
Sunk in peacetime, and by their own commanders, these wrecks are not war graves, but even knowing that they conceal no ghosts, the ships have a powerful effect on the imagination. The intimidating scale alone of a dreadnought in dark waters sets the pulse racing.
For tuition or dive guides contact Scapa Scuba (www.scapascuba.co.uk).
Climbing the Via Ferrata at Honister
Famously, the Lake District features England’s highest peak (Scafell Pike) and its deepest lake (Wast Water) – and to that you can add the country’s most ridiculously thrilling high-mountain adventure, the Via Ferrata. The owners of Borrowdale’s Honister Slate Mine have taken a traditional alpine “Iron Way” fixed-cable system and married it to the precarious route that Lakeland miners once took as they scrambled up the rock face of Fleetwith Pike. Result? You get a hard hat, a clip-on belt and harness, and a safety briefing, and within twenty minutes find yourself hanging on for dear life two thousand feet up a Cumbrian mountain.
And it all starts off so innocently, trudging up the path from the visitor centre with the guide. There’s a bit of hands-and-feet scrambling as you first clip your belt onto the cable, and some walking and some un-clipping, and some more clipping and some fine views, and then… ah, yes, that would be the steel rungs and ladder across the exposed rock face would it? Everyone inches across, grimacing, hands white against the iron bars, not – under any circumstances – looking down, despite the cheery exhortations of the preposterously nimble guide to do exactly that.
Never has 2126 feet seemed so impossibly high – or so dramatically alluring that you can’t wait to do it all over again.
Via Ferrata at Honister Slate Mine, Honister Pass, Borrowdale, Cumbria, www.honister.com.